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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Movie Review: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Hey there, my dear followers of the Dark Gods of Chaos. I'm back with the latest in my reviews of the Star Trek franchise. Today, we'll be taking a look at Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It's an even numbered Trek, so "logic" says it'll be good, but I don't hold with that, personally. So, is this the movie that made Trek fun again while also bringing that crossover appeal to Trek, or is it a sell-out that betrayed the maturity and seriousness that came before? Let's take a look then...

Personal Background: As a youngster, I was a fan of all things Star Trek, mostly due to my parent's influence, partly due to the fact that I loved science fiction stuff, even then. I had watched the earlier Treks at a young age (even if ST II was scary to me). However, even as a kid, I did not really care for this one, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I saw this one in the theater as a kid, but it just didn't make the impression on my that the others had. Granted, I loved looking at the whales and I laughed at the funny stuff. But it didn't take hold of my childhood imagination the way that the other Star Trek movies and episodes did. Even now though, as an adult, I can't say its one of my favorites. Indeed, watching it recently left me torn- the actors do a spot on job, but the movie overall just doesn't grab me the way the previous entries did.

Basic Plot: Taking place after the events of the previous movie, ST IV: The Voyage Home finds Kirk and crew still on Vulcan. They are planning on going back to Earth and facing the consequences for their theft of the Enterprise. Meanwhile, Spock is recovering from his life and death experience and is trying to reconcile his Vulcan and human sides (which he had seemingly accomplished by ST II, but his recent trauma has impacted that delicate balance).

As Kirk and crew begin to journey back to Earth, a mysterious and alien probe appears, draining all energy sources in its path as it sends a signal to Earth. Once it arrives, it strengthens it's signal and is directing it on Earth's oceans. The signal is so strong, that it drains all of Earth's power sources and wreaks environmental havoc. As Kirk and crew approach, they pick up the signal, and Spock deduces that the probe is searching for humpback whales- which are extinct in the 23rd century. In order to save Earth, Kirk decides to take his crew and his stolen Klingon ship (thank God for the cloaking device) back in time to the 20th century in order to locate whales and then bring them back to the 23rd century and, in the words of McCoy "tell this probe what to do with itself".

This is pretty funny, actually.
With the crew back in the 1980s, ST IV becomes a "fish out of water" story, in which the crew is forced to blend into 1980s San Fran, overcome some technical problems, rescue some whales, and make it back to the 23rd century. The humor comes hard and heavy in this movie, as the crew find 1980s San Fran confusing, primitive, and just plain weird. The crew is totally out of place, and their misadventures cause them to be the butt of many jokes. Can they repair their Klingon ship with 20th century tech? Can they find whales and beam them into the Klingon ship? Can Spock and Kirk get across town without exact change for the bus? Can Checkov avoid being arrested as a Soviet spy in a Cold War world? Hey! This is the crew of the Enterprise, so what do you think...?

The MacGuffin
Ultimately, the crew succeeds against the odds, bring whales to 23rd century Earth, which satisfies the probe and it leaves our solar system, restoring the power and the environment as it leaves; no apologies or explanations of ANY kind (this was the most MacGuffin-esq plot device ever used in a Trek movie). Nevertheless, Kirk and company save the Earth once more "from their own short-sightedness". And as for their  punishment for their previous transgressions, Kirk is demoted to Captain and the crew is reassigned to a new ship... a brand spanking new Enterprise (NCC 1701-A). The crew has truly "come home".

Themes/Concepts: The theme here, of course, is "Save the Environment". You see that once Spock realizes that the probe's signal is really whale song. From then on, the movie focuses squarely on that theme. In fact, at points, it seems to bludgeon you over the head with it. There's no subtext or subtlety here. This, in fact, is one of the most disappointing aspects of this movie. Each of the previous movies were about "something", but there were layers to those themes. With TMP it was "can machines come alive?" and "what role does humanity have in the universe?"- heady sci-fi concepts. With TWOK it was the nature of the "cycle of life and death", accepting your lot in life, and how hatred and vengence corrupts everything.Even TSFS had some themes, such as the possibility of rebirth, humanity doesn't have the power to play God. With TVH- we must save the environment. That's it. End of message.

A "Fish Out of Water" story.
Characters/Acting: This is what truly holds this movie together. These actors KNOW their roles, and play them to perfection. Each cast member gets something to do (although I feel Sulu gets the shortest role), and each actor gets to shine with either the humor or their doubts about this whole thing working out. The interactions between McCoy and Spock are a real highlight, as Dee Kelly shows genuine concern for Spock's well-being. For a time, they were mentally joined, and McCoy has a new appreciation for Spock, even if he still frustrates him. Shatner also does well, being the strong voice of action (despite his own confusion on life in the 20th century). However, all of the emotional baggage Kirk had built up for 3 films is totally gone. When Saavik tells Kirk details about his son's death- Kirk grunts, but that's about it. The script wants to keep things light. Unfortunately, this makes Kirk pretty two dimensional.

Surely he knew what he was getting into...
However, there is a problem with the whole "fish out of water concept" as it is portrayed here. The characters seem almost embarrassingly stupid. They say the dumbest things in reaction to being on 20th century Earth. They do things that ARE out of character for them, or just plain dumb. When Chekhov is captured at the naval base- he acts like a naive child, simply asking the interrogators "can I go now". Surely, he knows his history- the Cold War is on, and the US isn't going to just let a Russian onto their base. Even if he forgot Cold War history, Chekhov is smart enough to realize he is trespassing and would be detained- if some unknown person simply appeared in the star ship, Chekhov would put him in the brig for questioning. His response to the guards is just weak, just to get laughs- and not characteristic of Chekhov.

Funny- but not logical
Scotty and McCoy have a similar bit, as they are trying to obtain materials to build a "fish tank" on the Klingon ship. At an engineering plant, Scotty proposes to give the plant manager a 23rd century invention "transparent aluminum", in exchange for the materials. Scotty whips onto a 1986 Mac and speedily draws out the concept. I know Scotty is good- but really? He can do it on a 1986 Mac? Really? Oh, he tries to talk to it first, but then- bam! He types up the matrix in seconds. Really?! So, not only has Scotty damaged the time continuum, but he's also a Mac and not a PC guy... Uh Huh. And Scotty's rationale- "Maybe he invented the thing" is followed up by McCoy's sly "yeah..." is akin to Basil Exposition in Austin Powers telling the audience "Try not to think about it" in regards to time travel. Now, that's OK for Austin Powers, but for Star Trek... 

Another "colorful metaphor" is about to happen.
Again, the actors do their best, and the twinkle in their eyes and the zest of their line delivery prevent the jokes from overwhelming the proceedings. Indeed, Shatner gets some great legitimate jokes with "double dumb as on you" and "He did a little too much LDS". As for the supporting players, there are serious turns by both of Spock's parents (who are very welcome in this movie), and  1980s Gillian is as skeptical about all of this as I am, it seems. The actress does a good job of representing "the audience" here- this might be our attitude if we came across Kirk and crew today. Overall, the acting is great, though it strains under the demands of the script.   

The best special effect in the whole movie.
Special Effects: Sadly, TVH falls short in this area. Each Trek movie, whatever the budget, did manage to have some visual flair and special effects. Though TWOK had a small budget, it had great battles, the Mutara Nebula, and more. TSFS also had some nifty effects, including the theft  and subsequent destruction of the Enterprise, and the decaying of the Genesis Planet. This one, sadly, doesn't reach those lofty heights. The budget is clearly limited.But what's worse is the lack of imagination. The unknown probe looks totally bland- not only can't you tell what it is, you really are bored by the look of it. It has no visual flair, no sense of wonder either. It's just a tube with a golf ball coming out of it. That is very disappointing. The few shots of 23rd century San Francisco are OK, though again very limited. Same with the shots of Vulcan. The Klingon Bird of Prey stays cloaked for most of the film.The absolute BEST effect in the whole movie is when they de-cloak over the whaling ship- that's a fun and good looking bit. While some of the shots of the whales are good (Spock with them, Scotty beaming them into the Klingon ship's hold), there's not much else to them either. Overall, the special effects are very bland, and a low for the series.

Musical Score: This is a tough category. The music in this movie, by Leonard Rosenman, is perfectly serviceable. It is appropriately lighthearted and bouncy, particularly the "Chekhov's Run" theme  and when the crew first get to San Francisco. Unfortunately, we've had incredible and memorable scores from Goldsmith and Horner in the previous movies. These scores were epic in nature, grandiose in many ways (Goldsmith, in particular- he elevated the occasionally dull proceedings in TMP into something special with his majestic and otherworldly score). Again, Rosenman's score is just fine, though it isn't particularly memorable either.

It's as if nothing happened... the ship doesn't even look different!
Lasting Legacy: In terms of plot, this literally brought the crew "back home". Spock is back to (near) normal by the end. Kirk has been demoted to Captain (hardly a punishment for the man), and the crew gets their ship back. It's just like nothing happened in the past three movies. On the one hand, that's just like a TV episode would have been. On the other hand, it totally undoes all the major changes and thematic elements that occurred in the movies. That is what frustrates me about this movie, and Nimoy's direction the most. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy had all grown as characters- they faced enormous challenges that changed them in overt and in subtle ways. And yet, the end of this movie does away with all of that. They are on the bridge as if it were 20 years ago- nothing has happened, and they are exactly the same.

Of course, TVH has the reputation of being both "the moneymaker" and "the funny one". Indeed, TVH got a very large audience, due to the "contemporary" setting, the light humor, and the simple environmental message. When this Trek is brought up, non-Trekers know it as "Ah. The whale one". So yes, TVH did indeed make Trek more accessible to non-fans. However, what is more interesting, is that no subsequent Trek movie tried to go this route. All have had some humor, but none have ever gone balls out comedy like this one. Indeed, this is the other thing that bugs me about TVH and Nimoy's direction- this movie ALMOST jumps the shark. This one struts the line of self-parody and self-mocking. I can't believe that's what Nimoy intended, and yet, that's how it is throughout- the humor is a bit TOO much, threatening to make it into a total joke. Now, it doesn't cross the line into that, but it comes so incredibly close. Notice how no Trek movie ever again tries to go that far into comedy...

At any rate, the most telling thing for me is that I'd watch ANY of the original Trek movies BEFORE this one. Yes, even the infamous Star Trek V, flaws and all. It isn't about the humor. Some of the best episodes of Trek on TV are funny. Tribbles has a strong spotlight on Federation/Klingon politics, I, Mudd shows how robots would deal with a corrupted humanity by "taking care of them" in a paternalistic way, and A Piece of the Action, while absurd, shows an extreme example of why the Prime Directive is necessary. They mixed humor with strong and unique ideas. This movie however is almost too self-parodying for me in the humor department, and the theme of environmentalism is layered on so damn thick that it just beats you over the head. No grace. No subtlety. No truly grand sci-fi ideas. Even ST III had some of those things. Yes, the actors all do a wonderful job with it. They truly ARE these characters now, and could play them with conviction  no matter what the script calls for. I suspect that if they had dialed down the humor just a little, this movie could still have been funny without becoming a joke itself. Unfortunately, that is what this movie so nearly becomes, and I can't help but wonder how Nimoy, of all people, could have let it go down this path.

As a result, I give this 2 Marks of Chaos out of 4. The actors acquit themselves well, but this movie has too many problems to score higher for me.

Until next time...

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